Caution urged over special education reform

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DUP Chairman of the Education Committee Mervyn Storey MLA has urged John O’Dowd to proceed with caution when reforming the Special Educational Needs provisions in Northern Ireland.

There are currently 64,000 pupils on the special needs register which indicates the huge impact that changes will make. Commenting Mr Storey said:

“If the Minister proceeds with some of these proposals many teachers will find themselves taking on the role of a social worker rather than a teacher. I remain to be convinced that the Department of Education has in place the appropriate structures that will enable teachers in the classroom to draw a distinction between what are the educational needs and the health needs of a child. We run the risk of yet further conflict between these two areas of provision.

“I am concerned that the Department of Education does not possess the expertise to protect vulnerable children. Health and social care personnel have years of experience in dealing with special needs and should be enabled to protect the vulnerable. The changes proposed will lead to uncertainty in the system.

“When Scotland introduced CSP in 2004 the guidelines had to be revisited in 2009 due to ambiguity. Indeed, the changes in Scotland led to a drop of more than 10,000 children between 2004 and 2009 who had legally enforceable Special Educational Needs status. We would do well to learn the lesson of Scotland.

“I recognise that the Education budget is under strain as a result of the cuts from Westminster but we must not cut services which are vital and which are already under stress.

“There are issues which need to be addressed with our processes for dealing with special needs. Children with special needs are not being assessed in an efficient and timely manner. There are hundreds of children waiting to have assessments.

“That backlog is where the real problem lies.

“I have already raised my concerns with the Department and asked that if reforms are being made to dealing with special needs, we should not be reducing the ability of officials to process applications but should be seeking to expedite applications.”